As we approach the commemoration of ANZAC Day, we are reminded of the more than 25,000 Australian servicemen missing in action who have yet to be recovered and identified. On the 17th June 1917, British and Australian forces launched an offensive against German lines at Messines in Belgium. Made famous by the film “Beneath Hill 60” , the Battle of Messines was one of the most successful campaigns by the Allies on the Western Front during World War 1. However, success came at a terrible price with more than 13,500 Australian casualties. Continue reading
During my PhD at the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (ACAD) I developed a new soil DNA technique for use in real-life forensic casework. The study, now published in Forensic Science International, has shown that DNA identification of the fungi, plants, and bugs in small samples of soil can link a person to a particular location.
The project, co-funded by the Australian Research Council and the Australian Federal Police, created a mock crime scene to mimic the disappearance and recovery of a woman’s remains. A shovel was used to dig a shallow grave before being placed into a car boot alongside shoes worn at the time.
Six weeks later, the DNA of the fungus, plants, and bugs living in the soil stuck to the shoes and shovel was recovered, and compared to DNA detected in soils from multiple other locations across South Australia. The unique signature of fungus, plants, and bugs placed the soil samples recovered from the shoes and shovel just meters from the crime scene. This study is one of the first to demonstrate that new genomic methods can be used in real-life applications to track criminals weeks later and accurately place them at crime scenes. Our murderer has a lot more explaining to do! Continue reading
All organisms leave traces of their DNA behind in the environment, for example, in hair, skin, faeces, eggs, larvae etc. By extracting and sequencing DNA from environmental samples such as soil or river water, we can identify the species that have contributed DNA to that sample, in the same way that a forensics expert can determine who was present at a crime scene. Environmental DNA (eDNA) methods were first applied to microbial communities such as bacteria and fungi. In the last few years, the breadth of eDNA studies has expanded to include plants, invertebrate and vertebrates. In one (slightly gruesome) study, researchers were able to detect DNA from over 20 different mammal species Continue reading